Tue 27 Jan 2004
Every year more than two-and-a-half million animals suffer and die in British laboratories and even more are bred for experiments and killed without being used, all in the name of human health.
Few areas of scientific research have generated more controversy and the simmering war of words between those for and against animal testing has occasionally boiled over into violence.
Now plans for a multi-million pound primate research centre have been dropped by Cambridge University, partly because of the expected cost of protecting it from animal rights activists.
At nearby Huntingdon Life Sciences, which is Europe’s biggest commercial animal testing laboratory, protesters have repeatedly broken into the building, firebombed cars and subjected staff and shareholders to intimidation and threats.
The decision to scrap the proposed development in Girton, Cambridge, was made after costs grew from £24 million to more than £32 million.
The BBC quoted one University spokesman as saying: “We can’t afford to build and run Fort Knox.“
Over the years, the intense and frequently bitter debate over animal testing has become polarised between those who believe that it is vital for saving human lives and those who think that any sort of experiment involving animal suffering is repugnant and morally indefensible.
Animal rights campaigners start from the base of believing that it is morally wrong to inflict suffering on another sentient, living creature.
But they also argue that animal experiments are unnecessary and misleading, and that there are viable alternatives.
In the background to this debate is the menacing minority of fringe activists who are prepared to use violence to intimidate scientists.
Wendy Higgins, campaigns director for the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) said: “Experiments involve animals being poisoned, starved, blinded, deprived of water, subjected to electric shocks, subjected to invasive surgery and infected with dangerous diseases.
“The tests are both cruel and unscientific.”
Polls of doctors and scientists, on the other hand, record a near-unanimous conviction that animal experiments have made an important contribution to medical progress and would be equally vital in the future.
Dr Mark Matfield, executive director of the Research Defence Society, said: “We would be very unlikely to achieve many significant advances in scientific understanding or the prevention and treatment of diseases without animal research.”
Animal testing has a long history.
Galen, the second century AD Greek physician, worked with animals, while the great William Harvey used them four centuries ago to work out how blood circulates in the body.
But the modern use of animal testing, the first British controls and the ethical debate all stem from the second half of the 19th century.
Experiments on animals have been used during the development of many major medical breakthroughs, including vaccines for polio and diphtheria, and antibiotics, anaesthetics, insulin transplants, blood transfusions, insulin and treatments for asthma, cancer and high blood pressure.
Animal testing has declined over the past quarter of a century, with only half as many experiments carried out in Britain as in the Seventies.
Nevertheless, most of the fall was in the Eighties, with a levelling off over the past few years, and the slack has been taken up by a rapid rise in tests on genetically modified animals, which have increased more than tenfold over the past decade.
Rats, mice and other rodents make up 86% of the animals used; dogs (used for studying the heart, lungs and brain vessels) and cats (hearing and the workings of the brain) make up only 0.4%, and monkeys comprise 0.2%.
Proponents of animal testing believe it can now offer hope for defeating such scourges as Alzheimer’s, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and muscular dystrophy – and for developing vaccines for diseases such as malaria that ravage the Third World.
Dr Matfield said: “Non-animal methods are widely used, but it is necessary to use animals in the study of normal body disease mechanisms and at the later stage of developing and testing treatments.
“Scientists have strong ethical, economic and legal obligations to use animals in research only when absolutely necessary. “
“No one wants to use animals unnecessarily or to cause them unnecessary suffering, and we follow the guiding principles of the three R’s that is refinement, to make sure animals suffer as little as possible; reduction, to minimise the number of animals used; and replacement, to replace animal procedures with non-animal techniques wherever possible.”
However, animal rights campaigners believe data from animal experiments is often unreliable.
Ms Higgins said: “The basis of animal experiments is to try to create an animal model, but there are far too many highly significant species differences for that to be a credible scientific methodology.
“Animals react differently to humans. Thalidomide is an old example of a drug that was tested on animals but found to be harmful to humans.
“More recently, three neurologists have come forward to say that multiple sclerosis research had been delayed because the animal model of the disease was fundamentally wrong from the outset.
“Animal research just doesn’t give us that guarantee of safety that the research community would have us believe. If it did, we wouldn’t have adverse drug reactions.
“Non-animal toxicology is coming up with far more biologically relevant, reliable and repeatable test results.”
Higgins believes the assertion that most drugs on the market have relied on animal testing is unproven.
“Every drug on the market will have involved testing, but that doesn’t mean that animal testing has been essential to the development.”
According to Ms Higgins, the alternatives include cell, tissue and organ
culture, where cells, tissues and organs can be kept or grown and tested
on, epidemiology, the study of diseases, their origins and methods of spread
without animal testing, and quantum pharmacology, a computer-based technique
to study the molecular structure of drugs and their receptors in the body.
© Copyright 2004, The Scotsman